To consider the proposed Timetable of Meetings for the 2016/17 Municipal Year.
RECOMMENDATION: That the Timetable of Meetings for the 2016/17 Municipal Year be agreed.
The Council considered the proposed Timetable of Meetings for the 2016/17 Municipal Year as set out on Agenda page 155.
It was proposed by the Leader of the Council and seconded by Councillor Anthony Pollock that the 2016/17 Timetable of Meetings be approved.
Councillor Prue Bray stated that the Liberal Democrat Group supported an additional meeting of the Council to be held in January each year. Councillor Bray also suggested that, if possible, Council meetings should not be held in the week of school holidays.
Upon being put to the vote it was:
RESOLVED: That the Timetable of Meetings for the 2016/17 Municipal Year, as set out in the Agenda, be approved.
Councillor Keith Baker – Budget Speech
Setting this year’s budget has been like sitting on a financial rollercoaster. In the end we had 3 different financial settlements which we had to work with – one bad, one even worse, and one slightly better but with much room for improvement. The officers and my fellow Executive Members have worked extremely hard on getting to this final budget. They have had to be extremely flexible as the financial landscape changed. I would like to personally thank them all for their supreme efforts.
It has been an interesting year where for the very first time we embarked on a resident engagement programme specifically on our financial position. This engagement consisted of a number of events across the borough where the Chief Financial Officer would first “paint the picture” of our financial situation. Afterwards Executive Members and Directors engaged in individual conversations with those who attended. It was extremely helpful and the feedback from those who attended was extremely positive. As it was the first time we had ever embarked on such an endeavour, it was inevitable that we wouldn’t get everything right but we have already learnt many lessons from it which will be incorporated into next year’s events.
As you know, out of 383 councils we are the lowest funded authority in the country and we will continue to be in that position right through to 2019/20, and probably beyond. In 2015/16 73% of our Core Spending came from the residents in the form of Council Tax payments. By 2019/20, which is the end of the 4 year settlement, 91% of our core spending will come from our residents Council Tax payments. In contrast the figures for Reading are 55% of Council Tax payments in 2015/16 increasing to 70% in 2019/20. In absolute terms, by 2019/20 Reading will receive £32M, whilst Wokingham Borough will get just £7M.
This council has always believed in “doing their bit” to achieve the Government’s goal of a country living within its means, and we have always expected to be virtually self-funding sometime in the future. Unfortunately with the initial settlement almost all councils were surprised at the front loading of the government cuts within the 4 year settlement. For example, we had planned for a reduction in the Revenue Support Grant of a third but it has ended up being reduced by half and removed altogether in 2018/19.
I joined all the leaders of the Berkshire Authorities in a face to face meeting with the Minister to lobby for a change in that front loading. At the same time our 4 MP’s made representations on our behalf. The most active of them, John Redwood, had several meetings with the Secretary of State putting across this timing issue. I would like to publicly thank John on behalf of our residents for all his efforts on this matter. The Government listened to our case and took on board our arguments. As a result, the Government recently announced the final settlement which did not change any of the grant reductions but did provide a one-off transitional payment for the next two years. This transitional payment provides a breathing space for this council to plan how they are going to cope with the planned reductions in the government grants which, remember, have not changed at all.
Whilst we welcome the transitional payment it is important to note that it is not there after the second year. Why is this important? Well our services have to be funded for every single year. So if you use this payment to directly fund services they will have to be replaced when this payment is removed. That means either more cuts or increased income or a mixture of both. That figure over these 4 years is £36 million. With the 4 year settlement in place we can start looking beyond the next year with some degree of certainty about what we need to do to balance the books.
Later on you will hear from my fellow Executives the details of our achievements over the past year on a tightened budget, as well as our future plans to ensure that our Borough remains one of the best places to live and work in the country. Over the last 5 years we have made savings of £31M and our budget for this year includes making additional savings of £10M. Those savings are primarily made up of a reduction in grant of £6.3M and a growth in Health & Wellbeing demand (mainly Adult Social Care) of £2.4M. Combined they are 86% of that £10M savings.
All achieved without any cuts to essential services for next year. This is a testament to the ongoing efficiency and careful financial management of the Council by a committed Conservative administration and committed officers.
But what of the capital investments? A total of £85m which will add to the £56m carried forward from this year making a total of £141m in 2016/17. These will be funded by developer contributions or by borrowings that will be more than repaid in future years. We all know about the investments in Wokingham Town Centre. These investments will provide much needed income through rents which will be part of the financial package required to balance future budgets and invest in other parts of the Borough. I note that the Liberal Democrats want to cut this investment so I am looking forward to their alternative budget. I wonder where in their alternative budget they say how they are going to replace the estimated £2.5M of annual income from regeneration of the town centre.
But we also continue to invest in town and villages across the borough. Here are just a few of those investments. Fosters in Woodley will provide much needed care facilities; A new community hub including a library in Twyford is progressing; Expansion of primary schools in Earley; New affordable housing in Woodley; A new play area in Earley which fully integrates children with special needs with mainstream children; new allotments in Earley; The regeneration of the North End of Woodley Town Centre; And of course all areas will benefit from borough wide activities such as road maintenance and street light replacement. It shows the ambition the Council has for regenerating the borough and our innovative ways of generating Capital funding.
Our companies continue to grow and mature. Optalis is the most advanced of them now beginning to win various contracts outside of the borough ranging from consultancy on how to set up such a company through to providing services. With our neighbouring councils suffering similar financial pressure, they are increasingly engaging in a dialogue with Optalis. They have also been delivering savings of £900K over the past 4 years. These companies were the brainchild of my predecessor, David Lee, who should be congratulated on having such a vision when all around him, especially our Opposition, were saying it could not work! Thank you David.
Whilst you will be hearing from each of the Executive Members on their areas I wanted to highlight a few key projects in Children Services. Every one of us are Corporate Parents to the Boroughs Children and without exception we take that role extremely seriously.
We are making an increasing Investment in our programme to tackle Child Sexual Exploitation. This is an area that I have worked closely on with Charlotte. The work that we and our partners have already completed was recognised in the recent Ofsted inspection. But more needs to be done. We must continue to be vigilant to the differing types of complex exploitation that is happening in our borough and around the country. One step is to invest in a Multi-agency safeguarding hub here in Wokingham which is a great step to sharing intelligence and fighting this abhorrent crime.
Members from Earley, Woodley and the South West know that there is an increasing demand for places in our primary schools. This need will be addressed by extensions to existing schools.
Some of you know I am a long standing Governor at Addington Special Needs School so I am extremely pleased that a new ASD provision is planned with its planning application now submitted. Bridges in Woodley is one of the very best facilities for children of 8 years and above with disabilities for Short Breaks. Last year they were again graded outstanding by Ofsted at Christmas. This is several years in a row. My thanks to all the staff for such an amazing achievement again!
When you read the newspapers or watch TV you often hear about councils cuts to things like Children Centres. Well we continue to fund our early help services including the targeted Youth service, parenting support, our children’s centres and our early help hub. These are all leading to better outcomes for our families by making earlier interventions.
This is indeed an ambitious, bold and achievable budget. And none of it would have been possible if we hadn’t kept our finances under control and the books balanced. We owe it to our residents to invest in our community and help them steer out of financial difficulties to a more prosperous and brighter future.
Each year it is getting harder and harder to keep the council tax low but we will continue to do this to the best of our ability. What we won’t do is engage in a trade-off with our services for lower Council Tax for the sake of a cheap headline. Our residents deserve better than that. These are difficult times for everyone in the country but I have every confidence in my Executive, fellow Councillors and officers to put in the effort to get this council into a financial position we need to be in 2019/20.
Oh and did I tell you we are the lowest funded authority in the country. Thank you.
Councillor Prue Bray – Budget Speech
I would like to thank officers for their assistance with answering our questions in the past week, which is all the time we have had to prepare for this meeting. The Conservatives like to make it hard for us to scrutinise the budget properly. You will be glad to know that as usual we have risen to the challenge.
In May I will have been a Councillor for 16 years. This is the 16th year I have been through the council budget. I cannot remember ever in those 16 budgets celebrating Wokingham getting good financial support from the government. We have always had to rely heavily on what we can raise from Council Tax. However, never before has a government announced not just a cut to what government pays councils in grant but an intention to reverse the flow so that councils pay grant to the government instead in future.
Something else that is new this year is that this is my first budget meeting under a Conservative-only government. And yes, those two things – an onslaught on council funding and a Conservative-only government - are connected.
The Conservatives on this council cannot blame others for a 3.94% increase in Council Tax and a vice-like financial squeeze here in Wokingham. They have got exactly what they not only wanted, but what they actively went out and campaigned to get: a Conservative majority government which can do exactly as it likes unfettered by the Lib Dems. And it is doing exactly as it likes, and as the last majority Conservative government liked too: slashing and burning local government, privatising public services, damaging education, killing the NHS, punishing the poor and the vulnerable, and decimating social housing.
It is social housing, and the Housing Revenue Account, that I want to talk about next. I want to highlight three things the Conservative government is doing which are going to affect this council’s finances badly.
First, the government has arbitrarily forced councils to reduce council house rents by 1%. Great if you are a tenant, not so great if you are a landlord. This change reduces the money available in the Housing Revenue Account for maintenance and future major projects, so it harms the poor, Anthony, by not allowing us to maintain their houses for them.
Second, the government is going to grab our money. Each year some council houses become temporarily empty as tenants change over. If the government decides such a house is “high value”, as most of ours are likely to be, it will expect the council to sell it and give the government the money. If the council doesn’t sell the house, it will still have to give the money to the government. This is not in the Housing Revenue Account yet, as the Housing and Planning Bill is still going through Parliament.
Third, the government wants developers to build so-called “starter homes” for sale to satisfy the requirement for affordable housing, instead of housing association homes for rent or shared equity. This is a direct threat to the affordable housing commuted sums income anticipated to come to the council, worth £18.5 million in the next 3 years alone.
If the Bill becomes an Act without major changes, not only will next year’s Housing Revenue Account be appallingly squeezed but the Wokingham Housing Limited and affordable housing parts of the capital programme will have to be completely rewritten. One of them has been rewritten tonight by taking out £3m for a project on car park barriers which we are pleased to see the back of. £250k for looking at it is a reasonable figure and that is still there, but £3m for doing it. I don’t think so. I am very glad that we have just voted to remove it.
The other thing which I do wish would be rewritten is the regeneration of Wokingham town centre. I have spoken many times about this. This is a regeneration which is supposed to make a profit which can be spent on other areas, until Philip said tonight that it wasn’t, it was going to be spent on services. I think he said that in answer to a question. In the next 3 years there is no projected profit at all. All the regeneration will generate is a net extra debt of £46.789 million. I was slightly surprised, and, Keith, you may wish to tell me that I was wrong, but I think you just said that £2.5m was going to be made out of it. So, I am a bit confused, as there is nothing in the Medium term Financial Plan which says that.
Let’s move from capital to revenue. Adult social care is clearly an area of critical concern because of rising numbers of people needing help. The move to integrate the delivery of some care services with the NHS will help with the cost containment – but the council does need to get that integration moving more quickly than it is.
In a different sort of integration, the council has a number of services shared with other councils now, something which we have encouraged as a way of providing resilience and containing cost. There is still scope to do more in that direction – and to be more imaginative about it. And that brings me to my final point.
There are a relatively small number of children requiring residential care, but they have increasingly complex needs. One additional child can result in an additional cost of over £200,000. Last February the budget for children’s residential care was reduced, but the saving could not be achieved. The budget is overspent and money has had to be added back in.
The council has no option but to arrange residential placements for children who need them. With small numbers of such children, Wokingham is never going to be able to exert much influence on providers. We are not the only council in this position. So, in the same spirit in which we have in the past urged you to consider more shared services as a way of promoting resilience and reducing costs, without reducing quality, we are proposing an amendment to the budget, as follows:
To amend the Medium Term Financial Plan to take £50,000 from General Fund reserves as a Special Item added to the Children’s Services budget for one year, to fund an investigation into the feasibility of building a collaborative arrangement with other local authorities, primarily, but not exclusively, in Berkshire and across the Thames Valley, to find new ways of commissioning and procuring children’s residential care placements.
Until last week you were expecting to have to take nearly £2 million out of reserves, but the transitional funding has plugged that gap with a small amount to spare. Let’s use a tiny part of that unforeseen income to look to the future and see if we can set up something with other nearby councils to look at children’s residential placements. Individually, councils in the Thames Valley do not have the breathing space to think about models of commissioning and delivery. We would be, to coin a phrase, better together. Among the things that could be looked at would be joint commissioning to get the best prices, and even setting up a jointly owned company to deliver residential care – drawing its inspiration from the Optalis model. It must be worth investing £50,000 now to try to achieve the prize of long term savings, resilience and quality of service. I urge you to vote for this amendment.